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Tory bill proposes publicizing names of violent young offenders

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Friday, March 5, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick

With a greater emphasis on protecting the public rather than rehabilitating young offenders, the Conservative government is proposing changes for teenagers convicted of serious crimes that could result in their names being publicized and evidence from previous encounters with the law used in sentencing.

The Conservative government is proposing changes for teenagers convicted of serious crimes that could result in their names being publicized and evidence from previous encounters with the law used in sentencing.

Overhauling the Youth Criminal Justice Act had been a cornerstone of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's re-election platform, and yesterday his government tabled a bill that follows through on that promise, putting a greater emphasis on protecting the public rather than rehabilitating young offenders.

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In effect, prosecutors would have to justify why they are not seeking adults sentences for teenagers as young as 14 convicted of violent offences, and the identities of young offenders, even if not convicted as adults, may not be shielded.

The proposed changes would also permit sentencing judges to take into account evidence of previous "extrajudicial sanctions" that did not result in criminal convictions, but rather community-based sanctions.

The government also proposes toughening up the act by allowing the courts to charge and sentence young people when they engage in irresponsible behaviour, such as a car chase that endangers the public but doesn't actually cause injuries.

The amendments are dubbed Sébastien's Law in memory of Sébastien Lacasse, a 19-year-old Quebecker who was killed by a group of youths after making racially charged comments about his ex-girlfriend's new beau at a house party in 2004. A 17-year-old pleaded guilty and was sentenced as an adult.

"This legislation will simplify the rules to keep these offenders off the streets when necessary to protect society," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters yesterday.

But defence lawyers and legal experts argue that harsher sentences will not reduce juvenile crimes, and allowing the courts to identify young offenders, even when they're not convicted as adults, will prevent them from returning as productive members of society.

The bill states that a youth judge would have to consider whether the "young person poses a significant risk of committing another violent offence and the lifting of the ban is necessary to protect the public against that risk."

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"This is an example of pandering to public misperceptions about youth crime," said Nicholas Bala, a youth-justice expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

He said that the proposed changes are being tabled as youth crime is on the decline in Canada. Further, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in May, 2008 that adolescents and adults should generally be treated differently.

The causes of youth violence are closely linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, violence in the home and poverty, said Frank Addario, past president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, adding that research does not suggest that severe punishment of young people will prevent them from embarking on a life of recidivism.

"There is an unshakeable belief among the law and order crowd that young people should be treated more like adults," he said. "There is, however, a long standing rule in Canadian law that young people are fundamentally different than adults, that they experience the world differently, that their level of maturity changes their level of culpability, and that it would be a mistake to apply the same approaches."

He described the Harper government's planned changes as an "American-style approach to criminal justice" where the young are expected to have the same level or moral culpability as an adult.

"This can be seen as another attempt to simplify what's really a complex social issue in order to condense it into a digestible election issue," he said. "To treat the criminal justice system as if it's a solution for wider social problems, which the government has the tools to solve, is a bit of a sham."

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With a report from Canadian Press

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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